On Innovation: The Importance of Beginner’s Mind

As I mentioned in a previous post, Maureen Sullivan, the 2012-2013 ALA President, was one of the two keynotes at the Nevada Library Association conference I recently attended. The general theme of her talk was leadership and innovation. “You should do innovative things” tends to be the main thesis of these kinds of keynotes, and several reiterations of that same point phrased in different ways often tends to function as its argument. But Maureen’s talk was pretty interesting, and ended up touching on something that interests me quite a bit, but which you rarely hear about in these kinds of speeches, since it’s part of the darker side of innovation: resistance to change.

During the question and answer period another member of the audience asked something to the effect of, “We promote innovation, especially from new members of the profession, but what do we do about older members of the profession? Do we just encourage them to retire? Should they just get out and make way for young people?”

I’m paraphrasing, but something like that was the gist.

Before I go on, it’s worth acknowledging a few things so we can set them aside: Not all new ideas are great; not all people who’ve been around the profession are stalling innovation; and there’s a ton of things we new librarians can learn from the craftier veterans.

That being said, to me, one interesting question is, How do we, as young librarians, intelligently respond to resistance to new ideas?

This is what I asked Maureen Sullivan, and both her answer, and the discussion that followed, were quite interesting.

One of the key things I took away from Maureen’s comment was her statement that “resistance is a part of change.” This is, I think, something that’s easy for younger members of the profession to forget. We are encouraged in our practice to be innovative for the sake of our students and our libraries yet, of course, resistance is often encountered, for the simple reason that, generally speaking, many people don’t like change. There is a lot of literature on this within the educational context (for an overview, see P. Karen Murphy and Lucia Mason, “Changing Knowledge and Beliefs,” in The Handbook of Educational Psychology).  To oversimplify, people don’t like to do new things when those new things require them to change their beliefs or practices, particularly when they feel like those practices have worked for them.

What do we do with this fact?

I think one thing is just to be aware of it: resistance is a natural part of the process of the introduction of any new idea. So it’s going to take courage and persistence to implement new stuff, but, also, it’s going to take an awareness of the psychological issues involved with change and learning. When we take into account people’s natural psychological and intellectual propensities when it comes to change, I think it can help us be more open, and more willing to find common ground with others: it helps us when considering their point of view.

Sometimes I am surprised by how much people consider technology as the source of change in our profession. Young people, the story goes, are super-good at technology, and are pushing out the older folks who are less tech savvy. I think this is a pretty great place to consider the fact that not all change is good. When I think of innovation in the profession, I rarely think of it as having much to do with technology. Rather, I think I have, perhaps, a more conservative notion of professional change, where we think of – at least within the context of library instruction – creative ways to do what we’ve always supposed to have done, better.

This might be something as simple as forgetting about bibliographic instruction, and increasingly looking for better ways to actually teach students the deeper critical thinking and information literacy skills we want them to learn. If technology can help us do something like that (and sometimes it can), well, then okay. But, to me, what change is really about, within the context of instruction, is always being on the lookout for better ways to help our students learn. This is absolutely not something that the younger generation has an inherent birthright to. Learning from others, constantly being open to new ideas and ways of helping students learn – this is something we can all do. The only requirements are curiosity, a willingness to learn, and being open: to new experiences, new ideas, and to taking into account effective parts of our tradition as well.

Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, famously advanced the idea of “Beginner’s Mind” as central to Zen practice.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.

Suzuki is not saying that we shouldn’t have knowledge. Rather, he’s suggesting that we shouldn’t be so wrapped up in what we think we know, that we are not open to new ideas and experiences. This was, for Suzuki, in a real sense, what it means to be alive. We all know what it’s like to feel like we’re just going through life as a routine, experiencing the same things every day. Life lived this way is monotonous and boring. But to be alive – to be really alive – involves being open to the possibilities of our experience. When I was a student at the San Francisco Zen Center I heard a lecture by Marc Lesser  on the concept of beginner’s mind; he equated experiencing your life with beginner’s mind as the difference between going through live feeling dead or alive, of merely going through the motions vs. really living.

One of the best reasons to keep active in the profession – to read the professional literature, attend conferences, and talk to colleagues at other universities, is precisely that it helps us keep our beginner’s mind – it helps us retain our curiosity, by constantly putting us in the mode of learning new things and putting them into practice.

We all encounter people professionally whom we feel are just going through the motions of their jobs. That is what it is. The challenge, though, is not to fall into that trap ourselves. Young or old, it’s one of the central dangers of human life. Myself, I hope I retain the same curiosity and excitement about my profession that the mentors who meant something to me during library school had. They were the experienced members of the profession who were curious and willing to learn  from others. Because of that, they were good librarians, regardless of their age.

Now, She & Him’s “Change is Hard,” for your viewing and listening pleasure.

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Filed under Bibliographic Instruction is Dead, Education, Library Instruction, On Being Human, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel, The Library Game

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